By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) Michael Sam met with Jason Collins for two days before making his historic announcement, a fact that is as symbolic as it is material.
When Collins came out as gay on April 29 of last year, the NBA journeyman was at the time the first active male athlete in one of the four major team sports to do so. Those of us in the business of communicating with people absorbed the various reactions in real time on multiple platforms, and some of the first hours on the air in the immediate aftermath of the Collins news were nothing short of ugly, evincing the worst stereotypes of insecure male sports fans.
My observations are anecdotal — and of an understandably small and selected sample — but it seems that Sam has come out to a much more welcoming environment not even a year later. For that he owes Collins, who endured the first wave. Or more hopefully, one of the last.
Evidence is in the phone calls to the eight open lines, the heated scroll of text messages we receive at the station and in the Twitter timelines — my personal feed and those connected to the show. It all happens together, with the microphone over a desk that has three computer screens displaying multiple tabs of instantly-updating content. Our eyes dart as we try to hear our own words, hoping they make sense.
The shows about Collins were filled with hateful religious cowards hiding behind scripture as a defense of bigotry, one after the other railing against sin while insisting – comically – that they’re not judging anyone. A significant number of respondents failed to understand the difference between one’s hard-wired identity and a “lifestyle choice,” as if homosexuality were somehow akin to deciding to eat only organic food. These retrograde opinions were empowered by some media members themselves, like ESPN’s cretinous Chris Broussard.
It was disheartening, frankly. And it made it worse to hear from producers about the number of venomous calls that didn’t make it on the air. Nobody went home too happy those days.
And it was why I was steeling myself yesterday, preparing for another trip in the sports-radio time machine, back to the 1950s again, where we could hear misguided tropes of manliness, masculinity and toughness spouted by the angry and unenlightened as they hid behind their bibles and fake names. It would be Sam’s turn, the Collins reaction all over again.
Except it wasn’t.
It didn’t become clear until later on in the day, but there was no doubt that something was noticeably different, and better. The vehement, fearful negative reaction of last spring just wasn’t there this time, and it doesn’t seem to be coming. As noted by one caller yesterday, the open opposition to proud, gay men in pro team sports has changed from “burn in hell” to “nobody cares,” and that remarkable advance is more than a minor victory, when righteous invective is so rapidly cooling into grumbling resignation.
I’m considering all variables, of course. I queried producers about the multitude of calls they had received that never made it to me — allowing for the possibility that the reptiles had merely been screened out of the discussion this time – but they said that was not the case, that even the raw reaction had turned for the better. It could be that some of the worst offenders on text or social media have been blocked, but experience has taught that trolls repopulate easily. Still, fewer have arrived.
And nothing yet from Broussard. Easy for him to stay out of this because it involves the NFL this time around instead of the NBA he covers, but his hideous views went far past any sport specificity. Nothing, either, from the website for his creepy, all-male discrimination club.
Not even 10 months from one man to the next, and there are real suggestions that something is headed in the right direction. Collins didn’t get another NBA job, but the consensus is that Sam will play in the NFL this season.
This is more than a casual acknowledgement of a general trend toward tolerance, the thought of what the sports world will accept and understand someday in our lifetimes, or an arbitrary number of years from now. Indeed, it’s right in front of us.
The evolution will be televised.